For reasons of topography and size, France, particularly the south and west, has some great multi-day paddling rivers. Mountainous areas not immediately adjacent to the sea produce long rivers along which you can choose the gradient and the level of difficulty that suits your ability. And you can do so for days at a time. You can also add unfettered rights of way on the water, though that’s an unfortunate anomaly unique to England and Wales.
What they Say [translated] RIVIERES NATURE EN FRANCE answers all these questions. For each course, you will find: • the level of difficulty (easy to intermediate), the length, the duration • specific regulations for the course • the minimum, maximum and ideal water levels, and how to know them • access to water with their gps coordinates • QR codes to map sites (access) and water level stations. • the description of the navigation (km by km, focus on difficulties) • short hikes to do from the river (canyons, caves, viewpoints, etc.) • specific security advice • useful addresses (campsites, visits, service providers) • a detailed map with an IGN topographic background
In the introduction, practical advice will allow you to organize your descents… without traces. An index of routes by level of difficulty will make your choice easier. …with descriptions in German.
Rivières Nature en France is a similar if far more comprehensive title to the dozen Best Canoe Trips in the South of France (right) which I’ve used myself. This 416-page book compiled by Laurent Nicolet (distributer of Gumotex IKs and Nortik packrafts in France) lists no less than 100 routes over 63 rivers mostly in the south and west. It also includes parallel short summaries in German, is sold on amazon UK for under £25 and was delivered in a couple of days. For years Nicolet has produced videos validating the utility of KGs – ‘kayak gonfables’ or IKs in French. The book has more images of IKs than have probably ever been printed in the UK – well, until my book came out ;-)
All the great rivers of the south are here: Tarn, Ardeche, Dordogne (ideal for beginners), Verdon and the sportier Allier, as well as a whole lot you’ve never heard of. Up front you get a location map (above), after which each river is listed alphabetically and described over a few pages. The book ends with each route of the 100 routes listed by difficulty (left); 50 routes (1700km) are up to Class 2 and another 23 (423km) are Class 2-3. In other words, there are loads and loads of easy rivers to enjoy in a packboat without having to strap on a crash helmet.
Up front you get the usual advice on what gear to take and safety tips like never tying yourself to the boat or shooting weirs without checking first. That’s unless there is a portage-dodging canoe chute (left) – a common feature on French rivers which add greatly to the fun. There’s also an interesting rant against official censures against solo paddling “Imagine such restrictions on walking and skiing!’ Quite right, mon ami. And this being France or anywhere bar the UK, the author covers the full range of kayaks and canoes, hardshell or inflatable and even packrafts – he’s proficient at paddling all of them. There follows the usual advice on ‘leave no trace’ including using Le Poop Tube when en sauvage, an explanation of Class 1-6, the vigicrues website for reading live river levels and which I discovered last time, and advice on organising shuttles – all much eased if not eliminated outright by using portable packboats.
I won’t pretend to have read this book cover to cover, were that even possible – I speak French a lot less badly than I read it. But as an example, I can concentrate on a river like the Tarn which I’ve done a couple of times both in a packraft and with IKs.
The Tarn description focuses on the most popular 57km section from Montbrun to Le Rozier. I have to say I made that 47km measured off Google Maps on my big Tarn map (which covers the full 84km run from Florac, 18km upstream from Montbrun, to the city of Millau, 19km after Le Rozier), Using public transport, I found both Florac and Millau better choices to start and end a Tarn paddle. Anyway…
The first thing they advise is avoid the peak holiday period when the Tarn can become a logjam of hardshell rentals and yelping kids (left; actually the Ardeche below a busy campsite). While I’d certainly avoid the Tarn (and indeed France) in August, as a foreigner I found the occasional hullabaloo in July all part of the fun if you just paddle through it. Packed-out campsites along the stage described will be as bad as it gets. And they are packed out.
You then get a river summary: best time of year; regulations (if any); water levels with min, max and ideal levels, plus a QR code going direct to vigicrues – a good use of this idea; the best type of boat (Iks can get hung up in shallows); environmental protection (if any); wilderness and tranquility; off-river pedestrian excursions, and where to sleep but with only a selection of campsites including websites and a phone number. These could have been much more usefully added to the route’s map. Selected put-ins/take outs have more QRs linked to waypoints which are also printed in old-style DMS (44° 56′ 15.5″ N…), followed by the much less error-prone decimal-degrees (DD: 44.9376297, 2.321622…) format. Google still uses both but the sooner we all get used to simpler DD the better.
Next, the main route description KM0, KM22.7 and so on. ‘En aval‘ was a new expression on me: ‘downstream’. If you French is a bit ropey – or cordée – it would be worth translating page images in the planning stage so you don’t find yourself in l’eau chaud. Doing so you’ll learn handy expressions like en aval.
The book goes on like this, river after river, with enough photos to help you identify what looks appealing. It celebrates a newly opened passage of the Allier from Naussac all the way to Brioude (114km), though you may want to miss the initial 22km of “no less than 55 distinct rapids [up to Class 4]” which end at Chapeauroux.
On the train line from from Brioude, it was from Chapeauroux one June that I blundered rather naively down the Allier in my early Sunny days, after having found the Dordogne a bit of a doddle the previous year. As mentioned elsewhere, a dam up from Monistrol (30km below Chapeuroux) has by now been rebuilt and lowered to salmon-friendly levels so that the long taxi portage I had to do around the now non-existent reservoir from Alleyras is, from 2022, just a carry around the new dam at Poutes. (At the back of the book is an article entitled: ‘Hydro-electricity; the least renewable of renewables’). For the 12km from Monistrol to Prades (above left) you’ll again want a deck or self-bailing, otherwise you’ll find yourself as I did, pulling over to pour the water out of your boat. From Prades it’s all a less fraught and as enjoyable two days to Brioude.
You can have a lot of fun with the English guidebook – in some ways I find the basic design and layout a bit less dense. But once you’ve seen it and done it all, Rivières Nature has many more paddling suggestions in the fabulous south of France.
Back in print after 16 years, Rivers Publishing have updated their 2002 White Water Massif Central canoe guide, now less scarily titled: Best Canoe Trips in the South of France. Packboats aren’t mentioned, but what’s doable in a canoe is well suited to IKs and easier still in packrafts.
Compared to a Pesda Press paddling guide, Best Canoe Trips still looks a bit old school and amateurish, but there’s nothing else like it in English covering France’s inspiring Massif region (right). It’s a good example of: ‘write it and they might come’. Even now, let alone back in 2002, trying to amass this sort of information would take days of effort and translating. This is why there’s still a place for proper, well-researched paper guidebooks.
Visiting over the years with packboats, using planes and trains, I’ve ticked off just about all the original book’s big rivers. Like a lot of activities in France, the whole scene is so much more fun, open and less rule-bound than the UK. You can’t help but smile as you bundle into a Tarn or Ardeche rapid alongside floating barrels and screaming teenagers clinging to upturned rentals.
What they say:
[Best Canoe Trips in the South of France] is written for the recreational canoeist, kayaker, or stand-up paddle boarder going on holiday to the South of France. Rivers include the famous Gorges du Tarn, Gorges de l’Ardèche, Dordogne and Lot, besides some lesser known jewels such as the Allier, Hérault, Orb, Vézere and Célé. The Massif Central is renowned for its canoeing and the rivers in this guidebook are some of the best in the world for canoe-camping. This guide book targets those rivers that have easy white water and assured water levels in the summer months of July and August, when most families have to take their holidays. New dams, reservoirs, and guaranteed water releases means that canoe tourism is now huge in the Massif Central and this guide covers over 800km of class 1-3 [rivers], with all the details needed for a fabulous and truly escapist, holiday. This new edition has details of two new rivers, 22 detailed colour maps, updated river descriptions, recommended campsites and lots of inspiring photographs.
What I think • Great selection of brilliant rivers • Loads (and loads) of colour photos show how it is
• Maps too small and lacking in detail and consistency • Route descriptions could be more concise • Poor updating and errors on the two rivers I paddled recently • What’s with the fake cover?
Review If you know the original edition (far left), first thing you’ll notice is the near-identical cover, but with frothing rapids airbrushed away and a somewhat anachronistic SUP pasted on. A clumsy attempt to cash-in on the SUP craze? Some of Rivers’ other publications feature very nice retro poster-style covers (right) which would have suited Best Canoe Trips perfectly. Can a non-faked image of canoeing in the Massif be so hard to track down? The book is full of them. But if you don’t know the previous edition you’d probably not notice the front cover photoshoppery.
Inside, it’s now full colour and twin column, like a Pesda. Two small rivers have been added: the 23-km Sioule north of Clermont, and all of 13km of the Dourbie meeting the Tarn at Millau. It’s not much which proves they did a thorough job first time around, even if some descriptions were incomplete. Up front are Planning and Resources sections before getting stuck into the 11 (actually 12, with Chassezac) river descriptions.
Each river still gets a rating table for magnificence, enjoyment, child-friendliness, as well as cleanliness, temperature, flow in cumecs, and busy-ness. Of these last four, the traffic is most useful for what to expect. Without lab tests, all the rivers I’ve done looked clean enough, and temperature was what it was on the day, depending on depth or season. And who but a river pro knows what ‘7 cumecs’ looks like? There must be some rationale to it, but to me identifying the locations of more easily understood river level gauges (where present) would be much more useful, as you can refer to this handy live river levelswebsite.
The river descriptions are still long-winded – 85km of Tarn goes on for 16 pages, albeit with lots of photo padding. It makes it hard to pin down the nitty-gritty. Headings include Camping, Off the River, Food & Drink, more Camping then Maps & Guides. Then each suggested shuttle-able day-stage is described, some getting Summary and Description headings, some not. Boxes cover asides, others list tourist offices and campsite telephone numbers where surely websites (as in the old edition) are infinitely more useful? The ‘Off the River’ heading is a nice touch, suggesting the many other things to see and do locally, and you get a recommendation for the best IGN map/s for the river.
You’ll need that because, despite a handy, ‘big picture’ river map scaled-down to fit a page, with the subsequent stage maps you’ll struggle to orientate yourself unless you keep track closely, and the important detail is rendered inconsistently from map to map. All but three of the 20-odd maps are the same as edition 1 and at over 1:100,000 scale (some over twice that), where the 50k or bigger walking standard would be much better, such as Chassezac on p64. Only the map for the new Sioule river shows how it should have been done: a coincidentally usable scale of 71k and each weir, rapid and so on marked with a small red dash so you know what’s coming or where you are. The old maps retain tiny dashes marking such things, but in blue over a blue river with blue writing that’s hard to read.
Just follow the river you might think. But when you’re wondering just how far to that nasty-sounding weir (which turns out to be nothing), or even where the heck you are, without GPS mapping or a signal for your smartphone map app, a well-drawn and detailed map with accurate descriptions of bridges and other landmarks, is so much more useful and intuitive than columns and columns of text where one drossage reads very much like another. For 20 quid I’d expect to have proper, usable maps.
Full, town-to-town river descriptions would also make more sense than obscure put-in to obscure take-out. We managed fine continuing beyond the half-described Chassezac (listed under ‘Ardeche’ for some reason) all the way to the actual Ardeche confluence. Same with the Tarn: Florac to Millau is a great 3-4 days. Why not just provide a full and accurate description right through to the white water course in Millau (a fun finale!) and let the reader decide where to start and end?
Whoever they sent to update the Allier didn’t do a great job. Distances (another useful aid to orientation; easily measured online) were out. Over-emphasised descriptions of ‘blink-and-you-miss-them’ pre-industrial weirs are now irrelevant, while other chute-avoiding weirs have become fun Class 2s. There are even left/right portaging errors introduced since the previous edition. See the Allier page for more detail. The ‘fluffy-duck-mascot’ joke was done to death first time round. Unfortunately, the author still thinks it has some mileage in this edition. Oh well, chacun a son gout.
The switch to colour has given the book a fresh new look, but as a worthwhile improvement, the inconsistent updating has led to a missed opportunity. It’s perhaps to be expected because, as the author hints and my impressions concur, fewer families holiday like this anymore. Holiday-makers just bundle into a rental for a day and get vanned back to the campsite. All that is a shame as without the first edition I’d have missed out on a whole lot of memorable paddling adventures in lovely southern France, one of the best paddling locales in western Europe.
In 2005 the Dordogne and nearby Vezere were my first multi-day rivers in my Sunny IK, all helped by the discovery of the inspiring White Water Massif Central guidebook. The Dordogne was a good choice but to be honest, a bit easy. Ready for something un peu plussportif, I’d got it into my head from that book that the Ardeche was too hardcore, so I’d be better off on the less famous Allier between Chapeauroux and Brioude (big map, above). In fact, as you can read here (admittedly at twice the normal summer flow; video too), parts of Allier can get tricky (see left; a plastic canoe folded against a rock). Even though a railway carves and tunnels right along the gorge, on the first two days from Chapeauroux there are places where the rapids come at you fast and with no easy way out of the gorge if you get in trouble. Over the years stranded paddlers have been rescued by helicopter.
Not fully comprehending all this, in June 2006 I set off from Chapeauroux in my Sunny, and at the very first bend was flapping about like a salmon with a seizure, trying to stay on track. It went on like that for a while, then eased up and actually got quite pleasant by the time I reached Alleyras for the night. This was more like it; a wild river rather than the broad Dordogne lined with droning pumps irrigating the adjacent farmland.
Next morning a taxi transported me past the then-closed section dodging the Poutes dam below Alleyras (more below) and dropped me at Monistrol. Here again I failed to fully appreciate the greater challenges immediately ahead, even if the guidebook was clear: great fun in a creekboat, but an open canoe will fill up on the longer rapids. And if I didn’t know it then, I sure do now: the white water abilities of open canoes and IKs are closely matched, while IKs might easier to control for beginners (like me).
This Monistrol stage is run by commercial rafting trips (above), also a telling sign about the nature of this part of the river. I scraped through that day, exiting a few rapids with a boat full of water, and on one ending up swimming alongside it. Looking back, I’m pretty sure this was the exit of ‘La Barraque au Ponnet‘ (KM3.5; more below) with that raft above coming through soon after I stopped. It was all a bit of a shock.
Unless you’re confident, I’d suggest not following my example in doing this section alone. Consider a recce in the commercial raft if there’s one going that day, or ask if you can tag along for safety.
A few kilometres before Prades (KM12 from Monistrol) it all becomes less of a white-knuckle ride, and what followed all the way to the Brioude take-out were fun, Grade 2 rapids and a couple of thought-provoking chutes or easy portages. All manageable in open packboats. As you approach Brioude on the last day, the paddling eases right up so that you start harking back for a bit of eaux vivants.
All along what they now call ‘one of Europe’s last wild rivers’ you’ll pass many striking outcrops of columnar basalt as well as pretty villages (like Chilac, below) with adjacent campsites, boulangeries, quaint hotels – and not a chain store to be seen. Like the better known Ardeche and Tarn, the Allier is another Massif classic, still distinctively scenic but with non of the nose-to-tail traffic during busy holiday periods.
Getting there Although the daily trains aren’t frequent, with riverside stations at Brioude, Langeac, Monistrol, Alleyras and Chapeauroux, the Allier (left) is easy to get to with packboats. First, Easyjet yourself to Lyon, or Ryanair-it to Nimes or Clermont, two cities which are also linked by the scenic Ligne des Cévennes rail line (below). Brioude is an hour south of Clermont, and Chapeauroux is two hours over the hills from Nimes. Between them, Brioude and Chapeauroux span the scenic and paddleable 88-km section of the Allier.
One thing worth considering if you’re unsure about the half-day Grade 3+ Monistrol–Prades section, is coming up on the train from Brioude or Langeac. It passes right above the gorge where you get a good view of the Barraque au Ponnet and a few seconds later the ‘Roche qui Pleure’ drop a few hundred metres upstream (right; Gumotex Scout canoe). I’m sure glad I looked when I came back years later.
In 2018 I returned to the Allier, this time with a packraft. I flew to Lyon (cheaper and more frequent than last-minute Ryanair), caught the train via Clermont to Brioude (5hrs), and next day caught the first train to Monistrol (left). I planned to miss out the Chapearoux–Alleyras stage to save time and the taxi faff around the dam**. It left me three days to cover about 70 paddling kilometres back to Brioude.
** In recent years (click ‘P5’, quite out of date) the long-closed section between Alleyras and Monistrol has reopened to paddlers, with a portage around the new Poutes dam (left), 3.5km from Alleyras station (the train line crosses the river right in front of it). As part of the Allier resalmonification programme, the dam was substantially lowered and fitted with a ‘ladder’ to help the fish get upstream and propagate – plus give anglers something to do. Local environmentalists fought a long battle to get this done
The train heading upstream passed right in front of the Brioude weir (left) where I’d be taking out in a couple of days. The line then rejoins the Allier at Langeac before heading for Monistrol. Soon it enters the wild gorge and looking down at the rapids below I thought… ‘Hang on a minute!’ which, a rapid or two later escalated to ‘WTjoF!?’.
I recall being unnerved in 2006, but I’m sure they didn’t look this gnarly. I realised later that the first 100-m white plume was ‘Le Barraque au Ponnet’, easily recognisable on aerial maps, pictured on above in full winter spate. The other WTJ… was ‘La Roche Qui Pleure’ – two of the plus fruitif chutes on this stage (map below left).
I got off at Monistrol, scoffed a petit dej at a deserted hotel and wandered around town wondering what to do. The river didn’t seem higher than normal; perhaps it was low back in June 2006 when I came through in the Gumboat? Either way, thanks to my train preview this stage seemed a bit too ripe for me; the Yak would be spilling over long before I was halfway through ‘Le Ponnet’.
For a while I actually wondered if I was suffering from false memory syndrome from 2006 and might have cause to claim compensation if I could find the right lawyer. But I definitely recall the old Monistrol hydro plant (right) and my photo record shows I took the picture of the board below at 9.03 and arrived at Prades beach by 1pm, invigorated but not inordinately traumatised. River pictures were few back then in that pre-water camera era.
Later, trying to work out what was different (other than my aged nerves), I wondered if I’d just glanced down on Le Ponnet during a particularly hearty pulse of dam-released water? Looking at the vigicrues website later, the flow graph for that day (at Prades) does show it was high as I passed by around 8am – before dropping six inches around midday. I knew from the Tarn earlier this summer that following a stormy night, a six-inch rise makes a difference – it speeds up the flow but can also smother stony rapids and make them easier. The pulsed releases every 8 hours are the lumpy pattern you can see along the bottom of the graph below for the days before and after I came through. As you can tell, I am bending over backwards trying to find ways to rationalise my new-found timidity! Above left: from the Eiffel bridge in town, you can see the first rapid (looking back upstream). Like the books says: if you don’t like how this or the next couple of runs look, turn back. Otherwise – strap in for the ride!
Annoyingly, my GPS with good maps was at the menders. I borrowed a look off a trekker’s map (Monistrol is on the GR65 Santiago trail) but at 1:100k, I was none the wiser. I’d have needed a 1:25k map to find any viable paths along the gorge.
In the end I decided to follow a path by the bridge on the right side of the river, signed: ‘Viaduct, 1 hr’. It might continue along or above the gorge to a point where I could put in with the worst behind me. If it didn’t I could turn back and hitch or bus – or if desperate, clamber uphill to the D301 backroad to Prades. And that is what I did, but not without a huge amount of effort. Initially, the path followed the riverbank, passing a few Grade 3s (above, probably ‘La Benne’; KM1.8) which would have swamped my Yak like hot ‘creme anglais’ over a freshly baked rhubarb crumble.
Some three hours later, high above the valley and heading for dehydration (33°C in Brioude that day), I gave up trying to follow a path. Fallen trees, brambles, scree slopes, an intermittent path and the 1:1 slope all took their toll. After a failed attempt climbing a loose cliff, I managed to hack my way uphill and emerged a sweaty mess on the D310 backroad, looking like I’d just escaped from a teenage slasher movie. Scratched, bitten, stung and grazed to buggery, I’d covered 3km in three hours.
I washed in a cattle trough and passed through the sunflower hamlets of Conaquet and Conac, before splitting left down a side track and path leading back downhill, hopefully to rejoin the river below any enraged torrents. This it did, just before Pont Gilbert and just below ‘La Petite Grille’, by chance nearly the last (and easy-looking) rapid, 8 river-kms from Monistrol. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this turned out to be pretty darn good route-finding without a map (left).
At one point earlier, while thrashing through the bush or teetering across scree slopes, I heard the telltale whoops of hyper-excited rafters far below. I realised that’s what I should have done: taken the fun option in a big-arsed raft as far as Pont Gilbert (if they’d take me, with baggage). I’d seen signs for a rafting centre near Monistrol station, but the town was so quiet I assumed they’d closed for the season. It would have been a great way to punch through the big rapids without a care in the world. Picture above: the ‘Le Ponnet’ viaduct down below with the long ‘Barraque’ rapid starting just around the corner and ‘Roche qui Pleure’ laughing menacingly from behind the trees on the left.
Dropping the kit bag and setting up by the riverside below ‘La Petite Grille’, it had indeed become hot enough to grill a salmon, but once on the water it sure felt good to flop down and float away like a stray log. Just like in the wilds of northwest Scotland, if you have the choice: float, don’t walk. Obviously part of me wondered if I could have managed the gnarly rapids upstream. After all, I’d clearly scraped through years ago in the Sunny (still hard to believe). But I’d followed my gut and felt happy with that.
Watch Belgian packrafter Dzjow’s video below from 2014. He enjoyed the Monistrol stage so much he went back up on the train and did it again with GoPros rolling. Watching it, I’m glad I didn’t. From Monistrol starts at 1:57 and he shoots down ‘La ‘Roche qui Pleure’ (the image below) at 2:28, soon followed by ‘Barraque au Ponnet’ which starts at 2:34 (note the railway viaduct) and goes on for a while to the big rock (3:19) you’ll recognise on the left in the rafting pic, above. Dzjow was a hardcore adventuriste I’ve come across before. The following year he went on to do a self-admittedly tough and not so enjoyable trip in wild Patagonia. He hasn’t written about packrafting since. Next time I’m here I’ll rent a bailing IK as wide as a bed and give it a go.
After about 4km I pulled into Prades beach (below left). I needed salt and I needed drink. And while I was at it, what harm would a handmade mini quiche, some bacon crisps and a tartes aux framboises do? None at all, mon brave.
Now dizzyingly revived but still worn out by the morning’s commando course, I knew there was a bit of a drossage (great word) just around the corner, but it was all fun knowing a few others were playing around too, including SUPs. What is it with these SUPs? I’ve never seen them doing anything more than goof about in the shallows but rarely actually go anywhere, yet they are clearly ten times more popular than IKs and packrafts combined. What does that say about the state of post-industrial recreation in the developed world?
Unusually, I had a hotel booked at Reilhac, about 18km downriver, past Langeac. With just a couple of canoes on the water, the afternoon passed without drama, bar the odd wetting. But approaching Langeac, the din from the weir just before town was unusually intimidating. The canoe chute here (left) is well-known as being a bit of a drossage because it’s about 3 feet too short and so pumps a plume of water into a nasty backwave which not all boats can easily escape.
And I do wish these Frenchies would mark the tops of their glissieres with two poles, indicating: ‘aimhere’. Above, show me the chute entry point while wearing a pair of sweat-smudged specs! Maybe the idea is by not having clear markers, paddlers slow down and look carefully. I did just that above and portaged round off a little beach on the right. I could not be arsed with hitting the churning pile to get catapulted over the bow like a 40-kilo sack of dried beetroots. I felt that no matter how far back I leaned, my short, light boat would plough ‘n’ flip, unlike a longer IK. Back in the water, I paddled on through early evening Langeac and an hour or so later was slumped on my Reilhac hotel bed.
The next day was just what I wanted; a short, easy run of just 13km, ending at the UNESCO-overlooked village of Lavoute Chilac where the charming Hotel des Pecheurs tottered on the slender gooseneck bluff above the Allier.
Three clicks downriver (6km from Langeac) was a double-drop weir-chute (below left). Easy enough providing you steer straight for the lower drop, but I walked it as I knew it would be a bailing job, and today was some 10 degrees cooler.
Splish followed splosh followed splish down to Chillac (above, 11.5km from Langeac), another picture-perfect postcard village sat atop a striking basalt plug with dreamy views over the Auvergnois countryside from the terrace by the church.
Half a click downstream from Chilac is an easy, short chute (above left) on the far left. But once down it I realised the old weir passing below the mill on the right had pretty much been washed away, making the chute redundant and a fun ride down a long, shallow rapid. Clearly I was recovering my mojo if I was looking for some white water action again. Later, I read this weir has been flushed away for some years, but is another thing the new Canoe Trips,South of France guide had not updated.
Soon, the bluff of Lavoute Chilac rose into view. I pulled over left at the riverside park, let my gear dry, then walked into the village over the tall bridge (left). Les Pecheurs (white building on the right, below) was still on siesta, so I left the Yak by the steps and walked over to Le Prieure, the other creaky-stair hotel in the village, for a mouth-watering ‘Salade Auvergnate‘.
Wandering around the old church and the imposing, 18th-century facade of the abandoned priory (right, due for luxury flat conversion), I was staggered to see a July 1866 flood marker at the church’s back door. In the photo left my hotel room would have been submerged by a few metres. Perhaps the river’s acute 180-degree turn causes floodwaters to back up.
It’s the last day of my packrafting mini-break and by my estimates, I had about 22km of paddling, plus a 4km walk to Brioude station to catch the 4:10 to Lyon. I didn’t want to miss that so set off briskly, passing a canoeing couple (the only other boat I saw all day) until I could estimate my pace against a landmark. Before 11am I’d reached the bridge at Villeneuve meaning I’d covered 9.5 clicks in 80 minutes which gave me plenty of time. This Allier flows quicker than it looks.
The book talks of another old weir to ‘shoot’ at Villeneuve campsite, but there’s nothing here except a ford with poles marking the car crossing. Many of the book’s ‘shoot an old weir’ descriptions are out of date. There’s rarely anything more than a line of rounded boulders and a drop of a few inches, making you wonder: ‘was that it?’ But at Ville Brioude, just before the tall bridge, the book suggests you can shoot a modern concrete weir (above left). Good luck with that and those boulders lined along the base.
Finally I was back at the public beach below La Bargesse campsite. Ahead was the big weir before the red brick rail bridge I’d crossed on the train a few days earlier (left). Here again the book now suggests ‘portage right’ and other convoluted options – perhaps a simple left/right mistake? Instead you simply take out at the grassy park, river left, walk over a little footbridge and put back in below the weir under the railway bridge and above a shallow rapid.
Once again, I’m amazed at the true amphibiousness of these packrafts, especially if not hauling camping gear on the trail. A long walk to dodge gnarly or closed stages is (potentially) easily done, even carrying an inappropriate kitbag. With plenty of time to catch my train, I dried off, got changed and walked over to Brioude for a coffee and cake in the town square below the basilica’s decorated tower. In the hills all around the petrified volcanos and lush grassy valleys of the Auvergne countryside could easily withstand more exploring on foot, by pedal or with paddle.
Just back from Tarn Gorge with the Yakraft, All the way from Florac to Millau; about 86km. I’m amazed the beating this boat takes, scrapping through the shallows and bouncing off the scenery. It took me two days plus two half-days each end, so about 18 hours of actual paddling. Surprisingly, I saw only day-renters or youth groups on the river – zero other private tourists like me. And from Florac to Montbrun, and Rozier to Millau I was the only boat on the water of any kind, unless you count an inflatable flying Pegasus.
There are two + one unavoidable portages: Prades (KM23.4) and a longer haul at Pas the Soucy (KM51.6), plus the bridge being repaired at Ispagnac (KM8.9) which will be fixed by now. There are also two canoe chutes (Les Vignes; KM54.1, and just before Millau (KM83.3) plus an odd, unsigned low weir drop at La Malene (KM42.2). See the map below.
Besides a quick 1-day-er two years ago, we last did the Tarn in 2007 in the Sunny and a Solar: Florac to Rozier. It’s worrying what I’ve either forgotten, conflated with other Massif rivers or has changed, but the Tarn is actually a perfect first-time packrafter’s camping adventure. There’s a road alongside (not always accessible without pitons); daily villages for resupply and enough WW challenges to keep things interesting. The scenery and la belle France you get for free. I shipped a few litres on rougher drops but never came close to flipping, unlike a few hardshell SoTs I observed.
Getting to Florac (KM0) I took the cheapest redeye Easyjet to Montpellier (there are 2–3 a day), got a train from Gare St Roch to Ales (changing at Nimes) and next day caught the only bus at 12.10 from Ales for Florac, getting on the water at 2pm. You might also try Ryanair to Nimes but the way the timetables were at the time, you’ll still miss that key 12.10 Ales bus on the same day. Assuming it still runs post Covid. Another idea might be the way I came back: express bus between Montpellier St Roch and Millau (2 hours) then non-direct train and several buses back upstream towards Florac. You might just manage that in a day. Work it out with the Millau tourist office or the internet. Eurostar London to Nimes in 6-7 hours sounds so much more relaxing apart from the change in Paris, but usually costs more than the cheapest flights, and you still won’t get that noon bus from Ales same day from London.
Knives & Gas At least on a train you don’t pay extra for baggage, but they won’t allow a useful-sized knife or camping gas cans. On a plane camping gas is also a no-no, so I planned to buy a can for my threaded burner in France. No luck as outdoors shops like Decathlon were all in out-of-town retail parks. Your classic blue Camping Gasis widely available in bigger supermarkets but has a different push-and-twist fit. I thought we sorted all this out years ago! Oh sorry, this is France. After traipsing around Ales finding only blue cans, I ended up buying the can and push-and-twist burner in St Enemie (probably could have bought in Florac too). At least next time in France I’ll have the burner and know I can get blue gas easily enough. Or you could always use a plane & rain proof ethanol Gimp Stove. I didn’t actually use my 10-function survival knife, but you know how it is; taking one makes it more of an adventure. You can buy inexpensive wooden-handled Opinels easily in France.
River levels Not being a crusty demon of white water, I’ve never been that bothered about river levels, but a very good website is vigicrues.gouv.fr. You will see live measurements for the Tarn recorded at Florac (KM0); Montbrun (KM18), Mostuéjouls (KM65; near Le Rozier) and Millau. Generally in mid-summer Florac will read minus something and Montbrun will be between 0.3 and 0.5m. Let me tell you, once Montbrun gets towards 0.7m the Tarn is moving along very nicely indeed – up to 8kph in places – but 0.7m is usually a summer storm peak which subsides within a day. They say anything up to 1m at Montbrun is safe enough; beyond that things can get hairy.
I found the old 2002 Massif Central book (right) not so helpful this time round. Even though I sort of knew what to expect – no outright Niagaras – I would have appreciated better, bigger maps with each bridge, weir, portage and so on clearly marked to help orient myself. Also, the descriptions at each end, from Florac to Montbrun (first 18km) and beyond Les Cresses to Millau (last 12km) are either skimpy or now inaccurate, presumably because rental outfits don’t cover these sections of the river. On both these stages are rapids you’d really rather know about (see my map below). Read my review of the new edition, now renamed Best Canoe Trips in the South of France but with a near-identical cover (below right).
Thing is, on the Tarn you can pretty much blunder along in the dark; you won’t get lost, the rapids are never that technical, especially in a stable and agile packraft, wild camping is easy and proper bankside campsites, from basic to full-blown Hi-di-Hi holiday camps are plentiful and the main villages – St Enemie, La Malene, Les Vignes and Les Roziers are handy for snacks, drinks and pool toys. Can’t wait to get back to the Massif again.
On the way back from some riding in the Pyrenees I persuaded my lift that a day’s paddling in southern France’s famous Tarn Gorge would be a good use of our time. The 20-odd kms between La Malene and Le Rozier via Les Vignes (see map) is about as good a day in the gorge as you’ll get. We last did the full 75km from Florac to Le Cresse in 2007 with a Solar and the Sunny and had a great time. Since then i did it in my Alpacka again.
On this occasion IKing chum Robin was baptising his new Gumotex Twist 2, an entry-level IK which in the MkII version has gone back to shiny Nitrilon Light inside and out. I do read here that one unhappy customer found out it was ‘70% less strong and only 30% lighter’ than the regular Nitrilon as used on Seawaves, 410C, Helios and so on. His boat flipped in the wind and punctured on a stick which does sound like a gale combined with an exceedingly sharp stick.
According to the Gumotex graphic (left) it appears like Nitrilon Light uses the same layering as the Nitrilon in the higher spec Gumboats, but due to a lower-strength fabric core Nitrilon Lighthas about a third of the tensile strength. Many older Gumo IKs were over-built with tough, commercial raft fabric and so the result is a light and affordable IK with a slick interior that wipes down and dries fast. As a reminder the T2 is 3.6m long, a generous and stable 83cm wide and weighs 11kg (2kg more than the old model). Payload is said to be 180kg. Robin has the original Lite Pack Twists but found they weren’t so practical or robust, at least not on the submerged light industrial detritus found in his neighbourhood. However, Nitrilon Lite was dropped from the Gumotex lineup in 2018 and since then all Twists are made from the same Nitrilon you’ll get in the bigger and pricier Gumoboats. That also means a post-2018 Twist weighs 13kg.
These MkII Twists also have detachable and adjustable seats – a big improvement (or return to former practises) because it means they can be easily replaced with something better. There’s nothing wrong with the blow-up seat base but the inflatable back section lacks support. Robin’s fitted some sort of SoT seat pad (above, in his T1). Another improvement on the MkIIs is making the top seam on the side tubes overlapping flat, not just pressed together which maybe simplifies assembly in the factory but looks cheap. There’s a mushy inflatable footrest for the front paddler; the back paddler adjusts their seat to use the back of the front seat as a footrest. And there’s now also a PRV in the floor chamber which the Lite Pack Twists didn’t have. We like PRVs here at IK&P. We even like PRVs all round.
The £350 T2 could actually be a good lightweight alternative to the 60cm longer 410C (later the Solar 2) which at the time costs £200 more (in the UK), as it still has a useful length for a solo touring paddler. Problem is, using just the back seat tips the weight back and the bow up unless there’s a hefty counterbalancing load on the front. The boat paddles OK like this and probably turns quicker, but yawed more than my packraft so seemed slower and just looked wrong. For a while Robin knelt canoe-style which looked more balanced but isn’t a really a sustainable way of paddling without a bench. the post 2018 models have a third pair of D-rings in the middle to position a solo seat in the right place.
We set off, me assuming my Alpacka would be a lot slower, but Robin likes to bimble along, waving his bow around. The Tarn was shallow and so his skeg took quite a beating, made worse by the rearward weight bias. They’re pretty much unbreakable but I’d have removed it even if the tracking may have suffered.
With careful scanning the Alpacka just about scraped through the shallows, with me occasionally resorting to ‘planking’ where you lift your butt by leaning back on the stern to improve clearance. As you can see right, the derriere is the lowest point which I why I glued on a butt patch. On the Twist Robin could only shove forward or get out and pull. By the end the Twist’s skeg patch was a little torn which takes some doing.
It took 90 minutes to cover the 9km of Grade 1 riffles to the Pas de Soucy where a rockfall blocks the river (left) and makes some very nasty strainers. Midway en portage we nipped up to the lookout for the view then had lunch and put back in for the 12km stage to Le Rozier and the van.
Soon after Pas de Soucy is the chute or glissade at Les Vignes where a typical indestructable rental brick tends to plough in at the bottom, while an airy inflatable surfs over the pile. The missing fourth frame in the pictures below is the blue SoT flipping over. ‘Prends pas le photo!’ No harm done on a 30°C day in sunny France.
This section of the gorge has some juicier rapids, but it’s still nothing that would freak out a first timer; that’s what makes the Tarn such a classic paddle: great scenery, some white water action, easy camping and the fun of splashing about among the flotillas of SoT rentals. There are several campings below the road right by the river, though this time of year they’re all packed out. On arrival we got the last pitch between two noisy young groups at Le Rozier and a free lift next morning up to La Malene from the kayak rental agency next door. There’s also a shuttle bus running up and down the gorge. Read more about southern France paddling here thenn hop on the TGV with your packboat.
Le Grand Gonflateur himself, Gael A sent me this image to illustrate something. Its composition and colouring was so magical I’m compelled to elevate it to the IK&P Picture of the Week. Captured in 2005, the location is the River Epte, a tributary of the Seine in Normandy and site of Monet’s no less idyllic 1899 painting, ‘Waterlilly Pond’ (left). It looks like Gael is sliding down a burst canal bank on his H2, while his trusty compadre observers from the reassuringly stable platform of a Mk1 Sunny gumboat. Behind him a sign warns ‘Access Interdite – Danger [sauf gonflards] and nearby a docile cow nuzzles the trunk of an oak tree quivering in its prime. A serene snapshot of rubber boating bliss.
The story so far. We’d nursed the cheapo Intex Boat Hawk II for three days from Les Vans down the Chassezac river as far as Vallon on the Ardeche, but following a brief reprieve, that boat was now a bundle of plastic stuffed into the campsite bin (right). Former Boathawker Steve was now astride a rental sit-on-top, like 98% of paddlers heading into the Ardeche Gorge.
With the river already packed with day boaters, we joined the melee towards the moderately technical rapid of Charlemagne, near the Pont d’Arc (above). Recce’ing the Ardeche a year ago, we’d sat at Charlemagne rapid watching the boats come through, not all as neatly as the canoe on the left. But at that time (late May) the river had been at least a foot higher. Today, the surfing wave at the exit (above) was much flatter and the 200-metre dog leg channel to get there was pretty easy to follow. Traffic was much higher though and I had to queue up and take my turn to drop in.
As I rode through, in front of me a couple of teenagers in a double rode up onto rocks and slowly flipped over (left), but in the packraft it was easy to steer out of their way and complete the run. First time SoT-er Steve also had no probs.
That done, we pulled over to watch the fun for a while. Most slipped through like us, but the double SoTs were far less agile. There’s no mystery why; put a teenage boy and his eight-year old sister – both new to kayaking – in a 4-5 metre hunk of plastic SoT weighing 30 kilos and they’re bound to cock up any rapid that requires co-ordinating a sharp turn or a bit of elementary river reading. So it was that boats piled into boats (left) and a train of flotsam flowed out of Charlemagne towards the arch: vacant kayaks, loose drums and paddles, kayakers with no paddles, and the odd swimmer. Some very young kids were not seeing the funny side of it, but the crowds applauded their dad’s rock mounting antics and I don’t recall any single SoTs flipping. Remember that next time you do the Ardeche!
Just beyond we passed under the famous arch (left) close to where the Chauvet cave had been discovered in the mid-90s. Full of fabulous prehistoric rock art (right) dating back 30,000 years, it’s exact location is little known and it’s locked up for protection. The cave was the subject of a recent Werner Herzog film and, as has been done elsewhere in France, a replica ‘tourist cave’ is planned nearby.
Up to this point was the regular half-day fun run on the Ardeche. The next 25kms entered a conservation reserve with only limited exits, and to rent his SoT for two days Steve had had to prove he’d booked a place at one of the two overnight camps or bivis in the gorge (see map below). Wild camping is forbidden, although we did spot a few doing so and I imagine you could get away with it if you don’t want to get bogged down in the need to book the bivi in advance. You’re also supposed to be off the river by 6pm. As soon as we left Pont d’Arc paddling traffic dropped off dramatically.
I’d been put off the Ardeche for years by the rather intimidating description in the Massif book, but Charlemagne had been a doddle and levels were low or perhaps just normal and i was a brilliant paddler? I don’t think so. That book had over-egged other rivers and rapids over the years, but it is aimed at Brit families in canoes (not a huge market it must be said, never seen any). While my old Gumotex Sunny would have swamped harmlessly here and there, and also been tricky to turn fast in some rapids, the Alpacka Yak has the effect of reducing the WW grades by a factor of one. You can turn the Yak with one swipe and you’re so low and stable, especially with the UDBag sat over the bow, it’s hard to think how it could ever flip. We wound our way along the meanders, passing the odd knot of kayakers as well as hikers following the gorge on foot, something which includes the odd bit of via ferrata.
The rapids ahead held little dread now and even the notorious Dent Noire mid-river rock (left) passed without incident. I managed to pass to the right, the correct way but which the current makes quite difficult; Steve took it on the left, grabbing a small bite from the Black Tooth on his elbow as he passed. A pair of river rescue firemen are stationed here each day, but with a ‘chicken run’ channel dug out of the shingle bypassing the rock altogether, they’d be having a pretty quiet time as long as the less controllable doubles took that line, as the signs advised.
We arrived at the empty Gard bivi early and took our pick of the pitches. After days packed like sardines in holiday camps, it was a relief to spread out over a sloping field as on a normal farmer’s campsite. There’s nothing here but toilets, water, free charcoal for the BBQ pits and a 2km track up to the road, as well as warnings to keep food sealed against the wild boars. The field filled up towards evening but it was still far from the overcrowding for which the Ardeche is notorious. A weekend here may have been another matter.
Friday was another wonderful day, hitting the frothiest lines we could find (left) and drifting with the breeze under the overhanging limestone walls. Only one rapid flipped Steve’s rigid SoT out of the blue, while the following Yak just hung up on the same rock, pivoted round and slid off.
At times stiff a breeze blew along the gorge, either in our face or our backs, depending on the orientation of the meander. As the walls subsided towards the take-out at Sauze near St Martin (left), that turned into a strong backwind which rushed us downriver. At one point after a break, I swam out with my boat and planned to get in it off the water just to remind myself it was easy, but the little tab I was holding onto broke and the boat was gone like a balloon in a gale. Just as well Steve was downriver to catch it.
At Sauze beach the rental outfits’ vans and trailers line up to retrieve their clients and SoTs. Me, I didn’t want to get off the river, but our original plan to paddle on for a day to Pont Saint Esprit was only possible with our own boats. Steve could have bought another cheapie from a toy shop but it would have meant rushing for tomorrow’s train from Avignon. So it was time to roll up the Yak on this mini adventure and head for out allocated patch in the Camping Municipal.
Our week in the Ardeche was all a bit of a holiday, not the sort of thing we normally do, but a fun run on which it was safe to take a chance with the cheap dinghy. There wasn’t a mark on the Yak but I was shocked how easily and quickly the Hawk had got mashed. Conclusion: you do indeed get what you pay for. With some duct tape we could have kept it going and for the £35 it cost, it was still worth it as a one-trip wonder, compared to the commitment of buying a proper packraft. Combined with the brilliant Watershed bags, the Yak made light work of it all and makes me realise I’d be happy to do the Massif rivers I’ve done in the Sunny all over again with the Alpacka. It would also be fun to do the Ardeche again at higher levels and maybe start from Aubenas to make a meaty 100-km run down to St Esprit.
Getting to the Ardeche We took an infrequent Eurostar non-stop service from London to Avignon – just 6 hours but £260 return each. An Easyjet to Lyon or Ryanair to Nimes may have been cheaper but not quicker and much less fun. From Avignon we backed up to Montelimar by train and from there took the connecting bus service on to Ruoms (one ticket about £15 – 1.5 hours). At Ruoms, just north of Vallon, an empty minibus turned up bang on time and took us on to Les Vans for just €3 (30 mins). Simply getting a TGV train to Montelimar may be a better and cheaper way, but from the UK would probably require changing stations in Paris (40 mins walk) – or maybe just platforms in Lille. Coming back we got a lift from St Martin to Pont St Esprit (no buses – taxi €15 for 9km – 16km by river). And after wandering through the Saturday morning marche (above left), took the bus on to Avignon for just €2.50 (90 mins) for another 6-hour train ride back to London.
Tracking down Pont Saint Esprit timetables online unearthed a sinister history to the town: the Incident at Pont Saint Esprit. A recently published book (right) claimed that in the early 1950s, as part of what later became their MK Ultra mind control program, the CIA drugged the town with LSD with predictably terrifying results. Several people killed themselves in the hallucinogenic torment, many more were locked up in asylums. If it’s true then CIA stunts like that make an exploding cigar sound positively benign!
The Ardeche Gorge was the last big river I’d yet to do in the Massif Central and is one of France’s best known family-friendly kayaking adventures. Some days in high summer you can run from bank to bank, skipping from one rental sit-on-top (SoT) to the next, just like Tarzan across a crocodile log jam. That’s because the main Ardeche Gorge is a fabulous run of around 32kms through a wild, meandering 1000-foot deep limestone chasm from Vallon Pont d’Arc down to St Martin d’Ardeche (see map), and includes enough easy white water action to keep you alert.
At either end it’s also easy to string it out for a few more days. We chose to start up at Les Vans and follow the less busy Chassezac river east to its confluence with the Ardeche for a day or two. We also planned to continue past the end of the Ardeche Gorge at St Martin for another day to Pont Saint Esprit from where there were buses back to Avignon. Doing it in my packraft seemed like a great way to put the wind up the Frenchies, and I persuaded kayaking chum Steve that his £40 PVC Intex Sea Hawk II dinghy was operationally indistinguishable from my more expensive Yakpacka. We’d trialed it on the Medway back in the UK and, apart from a leak, it paddled well enough. In just six hours we trained from London to sunny Avignon, and by 7 that evening were tucking into a pair of steaming pizzas and an Orangina at the campsite in Les Vans. How great it was to be back in La Belle France!
Next morning a 20-minute walk brought us to the bridge over the Chassezac where other kayakers were putting in their rentals (left) for the standard, easy 8-km run down to Chaulet Plage. That was our undemanding plan for that day too, as Steve was going to have to experiment with getting the most out of his Intex. The start was a bit of a scrape and within sight of the bridge, heel-bashing the inflatable floor on rocks had pinched and gouged holes right through the Intex. It was just soft PVC after all, not a coated fabric as I thought. It still floated fine on its two big outer hull chambers, but as the day wore on more holes appeared until Steve was sitting in- and hauling a few inches of water.
This section of the Chassezac is busy with riverside campsites and holidaymakers in rental SoTs, as well as a few owners, mostly in Sevylor IKs. We met a guy who’d had his Sevy 10 years with only one flat, as well as a Brit couple enjoying their Sea Eagle. Perhaps these brands aren’t too bad after all!? At times it was like passing one long seaside beach with kids shrieking and bobbing around on inflatable dinosaurs, dolphins and teapots – almost all made by Intex.
Steve rode his Boat Hawk stern first, then bow first, but it made little difference, the semi-swamped dinghy steered like a wet mattress and required as much effort to paddle, while still floating in a legal sense.
But despite what the Massif canoeing book (right) said, none of the rapids along the Chassezac caused us or most others any concern, and we arrived at Chaulet Plage camping that afternoon to assess the damage to the Hawk’s floor. It was pretty mashed up (right) and his small roll-top dry bags had leaked too, soaking almost everything and giving a soapy tang to the coffee for the rest of the trip. Duct tape would have been a quick fix, but with none around, we dabbed on some glue and a few patches on the bigger holes.
With the Intex so easily damaged by normal paddling, we were unsure it would last, but you couldn’t take a rental SoT from the Chassezac to the separate Ardeche which was another day away. To get there was a 20-km stage of less frequented river but as long as the main chambers held out, we’d make it to the Ardeche rental outfits to finish the trip as planned.
Day two started with a fun maze of limestone pavement (left) to navigate through; we took a few runs in the Yak. After all the playground commotion of yesterday, beyond lay a quiet, rural river with just the odd angler, far from the dreary expanse of ‘dog water’ the Massif book warned of. We dropped ankle-high off riffles, waded occasional shallows, watched masses of kites overhead and came across remains of old fibreglass canoes (below), a 2CV chassis and stick sail boats.
The lunch stop revealed that Steve’s plan to sit out of the swill on his one good drybag had backfired: that too had got holed with his weight over the floor, so all was soaked yet again. Warm rain fell that afternoon as an easy portage around a strainer brought us to the Ardeche and a return to some sportier rapids. Down here I had a spell in the Intex and could see why Steve was gagging for an SoT. It was like paddling a sack of moldy potatoes and a new split was opening up between the floor and the side. The Sea Hawk was decomposing before our eyes.
Downriver an old mill house and a false horizon were a sure sign of a weir, one with hopefully a glissiere or canoe chute running off it (left and below). If this was England there’d be red flags, safety booms and neon arrows. Here in France you get just a couple of tiny green markers on the weir wall identifying the discrete entrance to the chute. Miss that and you’ll land on your head. By the road bridge to Vallon were several holiday campsites with an adjacent canoe rental outfit, so we found one with a space and spread out to get dry.
Next morning the mangled Sea Hawk was rolled up and stuffed into the dumpster, but half an hour later it was hauled out again. We could only rent an SoT here if we joined a group. Independent rental was possible elsewhere, so the wretched Hawk was dragged back to the river bank, inflated and loaded up. Another glissiere awaited us just downriver and this one managed to put a small hole in the outer hull; not such a trivial problem as the floor. Steve bravely hauled his sodden water mattress onward, stopping every once in a while to pump it up. Now he sat on the back and had his gear out of the water on the other end like a packraft. The end was surely nigh for the Squawk, even if it was now Monday and Vallon would have shops with duct tape. I tried to persuade him to tape the Sea Hawk up like a gimp, and keep taping until we got to St Martin, but though it makes a good story, where’s the fun in that? I wasn’t paddling it and as it was the boat handled like a wet paper bag in the rapids which made further damage inevitable. And even on a good day it was just too wide to paddle comfortably – the one-man version may have been a better choice in that respect.
Right near Vallon were a couple of portages, one surprisingly kayak-unfriendly, the other a boat drop where I discovered to my pleasure that my Watershed bags were up to the job. Downriver the bank was packed with campsites and kayakers at the start of the main gorge stage. This time of year all camps were full, but a chance riverside encounter with one patron got us a spot right over the river. The next day it rained, so we sat in our tents eating and reading, me with my Alpacka on my Black Diamond Lighthouse tent (right) which had become rather porous – perhaps it needed a reproof. But despite the rain, kids were still gambolling around in the river below late into the night. Although two weeks in a packed holiday camp is not my sort of holiday, it was fun to see so many people having fun.
By Thursday we were keyed up for some red hot paddling action. The Intex was binned, this time for good, and with Steve in his SoT, we headed down to the famous Charlemagne rapids just before the famous Pont d’Arch, were a crowd of spectators were already assembled to enjoy the daily carnage…
Just like their bikes and many other things, in southern France those Frenchies dig their recreational paddling. Unlike the UK, they don’t care if it’s an inflatable, a canoe, kayak, packraft or two bin bags and a stick. An unlike the England and Wales, (see green box below) no river permits or licenses are required; just adhere to sensible regs. Add the fresh food, good camping, inexpensive ‘creaky stair’ hotels, great weather, natural spectacle, easy access by rail or bus, plus beautiful medieval villages with weekly markets and you’ve got a great packboating holiday with as much easy white water action as you like.
Did I miss anything? Yes: the long-overdue second edition of Rivers Publishing’s guide which originally opened up this area’s potential to me. Generally aimed at ‘family’ canoeing, Best Canoe Trips in the South of France has river descriptions so you don’t have to worry too much about what’s downriver. As a serious guidebook it could be better, so if you read French, Rivières Nature en France (right) has better maps and covers many more rivers France.
Extending south from the city of Clermont Ferrand 200km to the former Roman colony of Nimes, the Massif Central is an undeveloped and relatively unpopulated upland region of extinct volcanoes and 1000-metre limestone pleateaux or causses. About the size of Belgium, the highest peak is the 1885m (6184ft) Puy de Sancy in the Parc des Volcans near Clermont. Now you know where all that Volvic mineral water comes down from.
Getting there from the UK The key airports to access the region include Clermont, Montpellier, Nimes, Lyon and Rodez with Easyjet, Ryanair and FlyBe, among others. Nimes is probably the most useful, but Easyjet (Lyon, Montpellier) has daily rather than weekly Ryanair flights with better prices when booked late. There are also fast TGV trains to Nimes via Paris, taking just 6-7 hours from London (red lines, left) but elsewhere or beyond, things slow down considerably as you head for the Massif (blue area on map, left), so it’s unlikely you’ll get to a river on the same day as leaving the UK. And while fast or slow, a train is a much more agreeable prospect than flying, even in summer and once you pay for baggage, budget airlines still work out much cheaper and as fast or faster, depending on where you start.
Rivers Take your pick from the easy Dordogne and Vezere, more challenging but easily accessed Allier, a Herault day trip, Tarn, Ceze, Chassezac which joins the Ardeche. Then there’s the Gardon and little-known but slightly greasy Lardon. Come August the biggest danger on the Ardeche is getting nutted by an out-of-control plastic rental. In 2018 I did the Tarn again, from Florac all the way to Millau in a packraft, and a few weeks later the Allier too. Maps below from the Best Canoe Trips… and Rivières Nature guidebooks.
They’re all fun in an IK provided the boat is not too long. With a long boat problems occur when the front noses into slower water or catches a rock, while the back is still in a fast current; the boat swings sideways, high sides and tips you out. In a slightly slower but much more stable and agile packraft I’d pick the frothier rivers like the Allier, the Tarn and Ardeche, because a packraft makes sub-Class 3 whitewater easy and safe. Packrafting the Tarn in 2018, I’m pretty sure I’d have struggled to control my 4.5-metre Seawave IK in some rapids.
But then again, packrafting the Allier a few weeks later, I was pleased I decided to walk round an 8-km gorge section of relatively sustained Class 3 rapids (left; a self-bailing Gumotex Scout) which would have swamped my Yak again and again. Here a decked or self-bailing packboat works better. And from what I’ve seen, two-up in a kayak or canoe makes things even more complicated unless both are experienced. If you do these rivers early in the season (June, July) there can be more flow, frothier rapids and certainly fewer crowds than early August. But summer storms can raise levels overnight.
Maps and river levels There’s a very good official website for live river levelshere with more about it here. For general mapsof France right down to 1:25k scale and beyond, IGN have an online portal to zoom in and view all their paper maps (right). As the Best Canoe Trips… guidebook says, they’re better than Google Maps. All that’s missing are markers identifying canoe chutes on the weirs.
The rivers TheAllier is a good choice for packboating as you can get a train from Clermont via Brioude all the way to the village of Chapeauroux, where the easier section flows right back to Brioude. Note Alleyras to Monistrol is now open (see link) but beware the first 8km out of Monistrol to Prades through the gorge. Long version in the link, but you’ll see it from the train coming upstream and may be alarmed, as I was in 2018, even though I’m pretty sure I kayaked it 12 years ago as a clueless newb.
The Ceze and Herault are car and shuttle-with-bike day trips. The classic Tarn Gorge starts from Florac (noon bus from Ales) and cuts 85km below the Causse Mejean to Millau with its famous viaduct just beyond. A great run with easy rapids, bar one or two not mentioned in the guidebook. Being out of the Massif, the Dordogne-Vezere (map above) are easier paddles, but iirc took me a bit of bus and train’ing after a Ryanair to Rodez and out from Bergerac. Perfect for your first IK adventure, but it could be slow and a bit dull in a packraft.
And if you don’t have a packboat or can’t be bothered to bring yours, no worries. Get down to a river and rent an SoT for as long as you like. It’s all set up for you. Click the river links for more galleries.
Eats, Chutes & Lodges On any big Massif river there’s a well-established riverside campsite and canoe/kayak/SoT rental scene, so that by August flotillas of holidaymakers pack out popular rivers like the Ardeche and Tarn. Plus, at any time you can pull over to wander through a village which will very often have a basic hotel from 40 euros, like the one left on the Allier.
Some of these rivers cut through spectacular gorges and are strung out with easy rapids up to Class III, weirs to portage round or tip over and which often have a glissiere or canoe chute (left and below) which shoot you down the face of a weir without the need to get out and carry. Great fun and often easier than they look. There are no locks until you leave the Massif and enter the intensively farmed lowlands by which time the fun is over.